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Teaching Opinion

Response: Using Social-Emotional Learning to Challenge ‘Systems of Oppression’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 28, 2017 18 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is the role of racial and economic equity in Social Emotional Learning?

Social-emotional Learning is an important initiative in many schools around the United States. It’s designed to support students in developing skills like self-control, perseverance, mindfulness, and self-motivation. However, there is also a danger of it being used by some as what I call a “Let Them Eat Character” strategy. In other words, instead of using SEL to also confront race and equity issues, I believe some want to use SEL to keep those broader questions under the surface.

This two-part series will explore these and other issues related to SEL.

Today’s post is “guest-hosted” by Mai Xi Lee, the Director of Social Emotional Learning for the Sacramento City Unified School District. After her introduction, she brings together responses from Robert J. Jagers, Mary Hurley, Sonny Kim, Dr. Christina Arpante, Meena Srinivasan, Africa S. Fullove, and Kashia Jensen. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Mai Xi and DeEtta Jones, Carla Tantillo Philibert, and Peggy Collings (their response will be in Part Two) on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Introduction By Mai Xi Lee

Mai Xi Lee is Director of Social Emotional Learning for the Sacramento City Unified School District:

The question of racial and economic equity as it connects to Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is an important point of reflection for educators and systems that support student learning. This is the “So what?” question: Yes, teaching and modeling SEL skills are important and fundamental to student success and improving classroom climate/culture (Durlak et al.), but what about systems of oppression that students encounter daily? How do you tell a student to practice empathy and perspective-taking, when they come to school hungry on a daily basis? How do you nurture a relationship-centered classroom, when you continue to send a student out for non-compliance or for slight infractions, such as not having a pencil? How are we attending to the high disproportionality of suspension rates for students of color? What about the widening achievement gap for poor students and students of color? How do we begin to have difficult conversations that may be uncomfortable and may surface biases, both implicit and explicit, that we may not be aware of?

To address these challenging questions, educators must first cultivate an awareness of their role in the system and how that role either perpetuates or interrupts an educational system that may be set up to advantage some and disadvantage others. This awareness may include a deeper analysis of one’s cultural stance, beliefs, values, and attitudes, and how they influence the way educators design learning and/or the actions they take when negative behaviors occur in the classroom. Developing this heightened self-awareness has tremendous potential for how educators set up learning experiences that are culturally responsive, inclusive, and equity-conscious. Social emotional learning is the leverage that educators can use to intentionally develop awareness of self and others, and, if done well, can help to navigate equity challenges with grace, compassion, and openness.

In response to the question of race and economic equity as it relates to SEL, the following authors share perspectives, both personal and professional, that will hopefully provoke deeper discourse among educators and open up opportunities for many to self-reflect on their role and how they show up for their students. As a researcher and collaborator with the Collaborative for Academic Social Emotional Learning (CASEL), Robert Jagers speaks to the limitations of current SEL framework and the extension of SEL competencies to include a focus on social justice, global citizenship, and positive identity. The Oakland Unified School District SEL team describes the importance of establishing district-wide SEL structures, such as professional development and standards, with an Equity lens. Africa Fullove, an Equity coach in Sacramento City Unified School District, shares her perspective as a parent of African-American young children. Lastly, Kashia Jensen offers her unique student perspective and the importance of using one’s economic and racial privilege to be an ally for others.

Response From Robert J. Jagers

Robert J. Jagers is an Associate Professor and former chair of the Combined Program in Education and Psychology at the University of Michigan. He is a Co-PI and Executive Committee member of the Center for the Study of Black Youth in Context (CSBYC). Dr. Jagers also serves as the director of Wolverine Pathways, a university-sponsored diversity pipeline initiative that offers out-of-school time learning opportunities to participating middle and high school students. His basic and applied research interests revolve around cultural influences on social and emotional development, particularly among Black children and youth. Dr. Jagers’ current work focuses on promoting youth civic development through academic, social, and emotional learning in school and out-of-school settings:

For me, the question is best stated as “What is the (potential) role of social and emotional learning for advancing racial and economic equity?” This allows us to evaluate social and emotional learning (SEL) in terms of how it might help advance the continuing struggle to create a more inclusive, just and peaceful US and global society. Evidence suggests that well-implemented SEL programs in school and out of school settings can improve a range of academic, social and emotional competencies for children and youth. As such, SEL warrants close consideration with regard how it might address nagging opportunity gaps and contribute to more equitable outcomes for diverse groups of children and youth.

Educational equity connotes that each student receives what s/he needs when they need it in order to optimized developmental outcomes. Given that 1) K-12 teachers are predominately White and female and 2) students are increasingly diverse, educational inequities are raced, classed and gendered, it is critical to attend these issues must be attended to within educational innovations like social and emotional learning. However, a cursory examination of the more prominent SEL frameworks, programs and assessments reveals limited attention to issues of privilege, oppression and social justice. This absence can result in a “powerblind sameness”1 approach to SEL that encourages assimilation and perpetuates the existing social dynamics and social arrangements.

I count myself among the researchers, practitioners, and community stakeholders who seek to make prevailing SEL efforts more germane to the optimal development children and youth from diverse backgrounds. As part of our work with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), my colleague (Debbie Rivas-Drake) and I have become interested in conceptualizing and promoting a transformational form of SEL that extends existing core competencies to include understandings and skills relevant to developing justice-oriented, global citizens. This includes, for example, a positive of sense of identity, coping with discrimination and acculturative stress and an awareness of sociocultural demands and affordances among children and youth. For teachers, we seek to incorporate issues of White identity, coping with challenges to White privilege as well as engaging in culturally relevant education for diverse students.

Such additions position us to review, revise, and/or generate alternative frameworks, programs and assessments. We believe that this work represents one way to advance social and emotional learning from an equity perspective.

Castagno, A. (2013). Multicultural education and the protection of Whiteness. American Journal of Education, 120, 101-128.

Response From Mary Hurley, Sonny Kim, Dr. Christina Arpante & Meena Srinivasan

This is a joint response from the Oakland Unified School District SEL Team:

Mary Hurley, SEL Coordinator, was a classroom teacher for 30 years prior to coordinating a district partnership with the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP) and serving as an OUSD Leadership Coach.

Sonny Kim, SEL Program Manager, is a former classroom teacher and instructional teacher leader in Oakland for 19 years, Sonny supports SEL implementation at the elementary school level.

Dr. Christina Arpante, SEL Program Manager, has 20 years of teaching, administrative, and professional development leadership experience in elementary, middle, high school settings. She currently supports SEL implementation at the elementary school level, as well as with academic SEL implementation in middle schools.

Meena Srinivasan, SEL Program Manager, supports SEL implementation in middle and high schools. She is a National Board Certified Teacher with more than a decade of secondary classroom teaching experience and is the author of Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom:

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a process through which children and adults develop the fundamental skills for life effectiveness. These are the skills we all need to handle ourselves, our relationships, and our work effectively and ethically. Everyone strengthens their social competencies to connect across race, class, culture, language, gender identity, sexual orientation, learning needs and age.

- OUSD Definition of SEL

SEL Definition with an Equity Lens

In 2011, when SEL became a priority in Oakland Unified School District, we invited a diverse group of teachers, administrators, and central office staff to form our SEL Design Team. They quickly realized that for SEL to be relevant to our OUSD community it needed to explicitly address the most important concerns in the city: race, class, power, and equity. Starting with the SEL definition from CASEL, they worked to add language that would reflect the values of our students, families and employees. They grappled over the wording. With the addition of a final sentence called the OUSD “Equity Lens”, they felt that the SEL definition was complete.

The Equity Lens has made all the difference with how SEL is being accepted and implemented throughout the district. There’s a feeling of ownership, accountability, and pride in having our own equity-infused definition of SEL. The equity lens has influenced many significant policies and practices, systems and structures during the past six years, including: 1) Our SEL Standards for adults and students; 2) All K-12 evidence-based SEL programs; and, 3) The implementation of our 3 Signature SEL Practices for adults.

SEL Standards

The group of teachers and administrators who came together to develop our SEL Standards wanted equity to be at the center of their work. This was a challenging process. Identifying the key observable behaviors and actions for each standard required us to individually and collectively confront our implicit biases and personal assumptions. The resulting SEL Standards are developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive and identify and acknowledge the assets each individual possesses, particularly people of color.

SEL Programs

Three teams of K-12 teachers volunteered to meet weekly in 2016 to review and select SEL programs to recommend to the district. Their starting point was to design a rubric for evaluating programs based on the OUSD SEL definition and our SEL Standards. During the evaluation discussions, they repeatedly called out how each program was representing students based on race, gender, and culture. It was a sobering process for the groups who realized how pervasive cultural stereotyping could be, even in SEL programs.

Adult SEL Practices—"You can’t teach what you don’t know.”

As SEL became a prominent feature of the district’s policies, it also became apparent that many adults did not actually know how to practice SEL on a daily basis. Adapted from the work of Ann McKay Bryson, CASEL SEL Professional Learning Consultant, our 3 Signature SEL Practices (Welcoming Ritual/Inclusion Activities, Engaging Practices, and Optimistic Closures) are designed to help create safe, generous, equity-centered, and productive learning spaces for adults and students. When we are intentional about the purpose, frequency, and facilitation of these practices, they become habits that can create a culture where all individuals are seen and heard for who they are.

Response From Africa S. Fullove

Mrs. Africa S. Fullove has worked in Sacramento City Unified School District for more than 15 years in various capacities ranging from classroom paraeducator, behavior intervention educator, special education teacher, and most recently as a training specialist for the district’s equity department. Mrs. Fullove graduated from The University of the Pacific (Benerd School of Education) with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies and received a graduate degree from California State Sacramento with a Master’s Degree in Education. Additionally, Mrs. Fullove received a multiple subject K-8 teaching credential as well as an education specialist teaching credential from California State University of Sacramento:

As an equity coach, educator, and parent of two African-American children, the question around the role race and equity play in social emotional learning (SEL) is an ongoing topic of discussion for my family and me. Like most parents, I support my children on their educational journey, by pushing my children to challenge themselves, engage in their classroom communities, and be productive participants in their education. I have an additional perspective on the impact positive relationships have on student learning and achievement because of my role as an Equity coach.

I know that for my two African-American students, their academic achievement may depend on the strength of those relationships. I carry a level of concern for their social, emotional, and academic well-being on the school campus and in the classroom setting. That concern, is at times magnified depending on which child I am reflecting on. I carry different concerns for each of my children; with my daughter, I am often concerned that she is being pushed and challenged enough, as many of our black and brown girls are often promoted, because they were able to demonstrate the perceived “good student behavior” in the classroom. With my son, I worry about how the world will perceive and/or judge him. I know that for most educators, a change will occur in how my son is supported academically, and that this change will directly correlate to his being perceived as a threat or trouble maker. These concerns, although very real in my world as the parent of these two beautiful children, cannot dictate the types of educational experiences I push for my children to have access to. As a parent, my wish is that the teachers supporting my children, are able to take the time to truly get to know who my kids are and see the value they bring to the learning environment.

Equity and SEL are the way to create the learning conditions needed for all children to be successful. Schools must provide ongoing opportunities for all students to practice self and social awareness through an equitable lens. It really is about “relationships” and, more specifically, as educators, we must be in positive relationship with our students, colleagues, and parent/community members, to create the most optimal educational experience for our students. When children are exposed to the instructional practices that celebrate collaboration and communication, they become more connected to the larger classroom culture. They connect deeply to a more collaborative and collective approach to learning. My own children have thrived socially, emotionally,and academically in classrooms that practiced community building, where teachers conducted home visits, facilitated collaborative discussions, instructed through narratives, and engaged parents with a relationship-ship focused approach. My children and I have been lucky to encounter educators who value positive relationships and were interested in connecting with us.

Along the way, I’ve learned the following:

Get involved!

As a parent, be as present and involved as possible. This may look like responding promptly to emails sent out by teachers, or volunteering periodically in the classroom or schoolwide. Be a participant in any way you can, to keep you connected to your child’s educational experience daily.

Make Connections!

As a parent who has been unable to volunteer on campus as often as I would like, exchanging contact information with other parents has provided alternative ways to keep me connected to what is going on in the classroom and at school. Keeping track via Shutterfly account and on the school’s website, has also kept me engaged and connected to the experiences my children are having on campus. Welcome home visits from your child’s teacher(s), this presents a united front and further aligns the home and school as allies in education your child.

Talk to your children daily!

Get daily feedback from your children around what felt good during their school day as well as challenges they may have faced. Approach these conversations without judgment and/or blame on your student or their teacher. This practice models for your children, that mistakes happen, we address them, and move on with a fresh start.

Response From Kashia Jensen

Kashia Jensen is a 10th grader at Cosumnes Oaks High School in Elk Grove, Calif. She is an active member in various clubs and afterschool activities, such as UNICEF, National Honor Society, and the COHS Marching Band. In her spare time, Kashia enjoys classic novels, volleyball, running, serving her community, and debating with friends and family:

As a biracial teen with both Caucasian and Hmong ancestry, I am very aware of the racial bias and economic inequities our society faces today. I am cognizant when it comes to the benefits and perks I get simply because of the color of my skin. There have been far too many instances where I have had the upper hand, from being treated nicer at a cash register to a police officer issuing my white dad a friendly warning after being pulled over. I understand I have privileges others don’t, again because of the color of my skin.

In addition to race, there are also great inequities economically in our community. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, about 15 million children are at or below the poverty line (NCCP). This is a huge disadvantage for some kids and places a big toll on their school experience, whether it be missing out on expensive educationally-enhanced field trips or joining an extracurricular activity outside of school, such as competitive club sports. Economic disadvantages can also impact their academic success, especially if kids feel they must work in order to help their parents keep food on the table. These kinds of financial struggles can result in some kids feeling socially disconnected from their peers and embarrassed for something that is beyond their control.

I believe the development and practice of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills is the key to getting more advantaged (privileged) students to initiate a “call to action” in order to better help disadvantaged peers in their community. In order to effectively be allies to our peers, we must actively engage in conversations and activities around unity, build better awareness for our own prejudices and privileged status, and have a better understanding for those in need of our support. Whether it be with honest class discussions or hosting school-wide activities designed for kids to bond and learn from each other, the goal is to unite our community and make all kids feel included and welcomed, regardless of race, culture, or economic status. On top of that, teachers play an important role in modeling SEL skills and helping kids to apply these following skills: Self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (CASEL). Using these SEL skills will help us to have honest, difficult conversations about race and economic inequities, but will also support us to build a more inclusive community.

Thanks to Mai Xi, Robert, Mary, Sonny, Christina, Meena, Africa, and Kashia for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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